The Pennsylvania General Assembly Collection is the 422-volume original library of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Currently residing in the Rare Books Room of the State Library of Pennsylvania, the General Assembly Collection slipped out of history after its move from Philadelphia to Harrisburg in the early years of the 19th century. It was only in the 1960s that dedicated researchers from Independence National Historic Park and the State Library of Pennsylvania realized the historical value of this collection, and that all of the volumes were still together. Here was a collection intimately connected with two of the seminal moments in our nation’s history, namely the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Norris, II spearheaded the drive to establish the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s library and make it one of the finest in the colonies. In 1745/6 while Clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Franklin purchased the core books of the library from William Strahan, a London bookseller. He chose these books to serve as a practical law library for statesmen, covering the breadth of English and international law. Franklin and Norris then chose to round out the collection with additional volumes on philosophy, art, architecture, and the natural sciences. Today, the books selected offer remarkable insight into the worldview of a Colonial statesman.
Even more remarkably, this was the resource library available to our Founding Fathers as they debated and wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the U.S. Constitution in 1787.
In summer 1776, the General Assembly Collection was maintained in the Library and Committee Room of the State Assembly Building, now commonly known as Independence Hall. Access to the Library and Committee Room was through the back door of the main Assembly Chamber. The books were readily available for reference. Appropriately, the library prominently contained not just law, but the works of John Locke, whose influence permeates the Declaration, inspiring the immortal phrase, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Eleven years later, the eyes of America once again focused on the State Assembly Building as the Constitutional Convention met in secret to draft a new set of laws to govern the young nation. Once again, the General Assembly Collection served as a readily available resource library to the assembled statesmen. Edmund Randolph wrote the first draft of the Constitution, which was then rewritten by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, and polished by a committee of Alexander Hamilton of New York, William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, Rufus King of Massachusetts, James Madison of Virginia, and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania.
In addition to the bound Journals of Congress containing the Proceedings from 1775-1788, the Rare Books Room of the State Library contains one of the 18 known surviving copies of the first public printing of the U.S. Constitution, both important components of the General Assembly Collection.
But the General Assembly Collection is more than a witness to these foundational moments in American history. Through the 100 volumes of official minutes and laws, it traces the 18th century history of the Pennsylvania General Assembly as it negotiated with the Penn family, as it appointed Benjamin Franklin to serve on a series of momentous missions to England, and as it reacted to the burdensome laws and tax levies that formed the prelude to revolution.
English law and philosophy forged the men who served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the Second Continental Congress, and the Constitutional Convention. The volumes of the General Assembly Collection -- the works of John Locke, the Statutes at Large, and the works of Coke, Puffendorf, De Vatell, Grotius, and many of the other great European legal authorities -- represent the legal universe that gave shape and legal credibility to the revolutionary documents of that time. As has been said, the fingerprints of the Founding Fathers are all over these books.